You are a citizen of Arstotzka — Glory to Arstotzka. After applying to the labor lottery yet again you’ve finally been assigned a position — and not a moment too soon, your savings just ran out. You have been granted the privilege of being a Border Inspector. Checking over documents of incoming immigrants to make sure they are supposed to enter the country. Every person you process correctly earns you the money your family needs to survive. If they all die on your watch or your account balance is in the red then it’s game over. Cross-reference information, learn correct passport information — and there’s lots of it — and make moral decisions on the border of Glorious Arstotzka.
Papers, Please was developed indie style by Lucas Pope. A former developer for Naughty Dog, he left the company during Uncharted’s development to strike out on his own. Papers, Please was intended to be made in six months but it took three more for Pope to make it to his liking. It was inspired in part by his experience living in Japan as a US citizen, describing the experience of dealing with immigration as ‘tense’.
Papers, Please was released on August 8th, 2013. It’s competition was Spelunky (PC), Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (X Box Live Indie Arcade), and Gone Home (PC, Mac, and Linux)
When I started this blog I did so with the principle that I should finish every game before I discuss it.
I kind of put some cracks in that principle when I tried to beat Speed Racer: In My Most Dangerous Adventures — and almost did if the last race wasn’t nearly impossible– failed, but reviewed it anyway. But this is the game that truly broke me of the notion. Papers, Please is the best game I’ve never completed. The stress and monotony made the game too unpleasant to continue. I made it to day 18, 3 hours in before the game became too complex for me to play without screwing up routinely. As an anxious individual it wreaked havoc on my nerves. As a mild completionist it is the one game that exists in a sort of equilibrium of too painful to finish but also too shameful a failure to forget.
Papers, Please sells itself as a Dystopian Document Thriller and it delivers. Each level consists of a work day in which the player only has a limited amount of time to examine and authenticate as many immigrants’ paperwork as possible. This authentication process includes checking their passport, its city of distribution, the sex of the immigrant, name, what country their from, if they have a work pass, if the work pass has the proper seal… it’s incredibly stressful madness. Every day you have to spend the money you earn on keeping your apartment warm and feeding your family, consisting of you wife, son, mother in law, and uncle. If they’re not kept fed and watered then they’ll die — but hey, that’s fewer mouths to feed if you want to look at it like a cynical monster.
Naturally, not everyone’s papers are in order. These people will have to be turned away or detained — if they get too lippy. It may sound boring, because it sort of is, until the Arstoztkan immigration board keeps changing the rules. Every day they will add a new rule and they just don’t stop. Once you’ve got ahold of that then the moral decisions will start. Occasionally your moral compass will be tested and doing what’s wrong or right might break the rules… which will cost you money… which you need to keep your family alive… so have fun.
The moral situations can be mind-wracking, soul-wrenching, haunting affairs. My personal favorite experience was when it was the Inspector’s son’s birthday and I could spend five credits on buying him a tiny box of crayons. I nearly tore my hair out thinking about it because those were five credits I might not be able to afford to spend. Those might be the five credits I need to keep the house warm or put food on the table. Looking back it taught me that it’s a choice that no parent should ever have to face.
If that example was any indication, this game is filled with anguish — is anguish something I can praise? Art is meant to evoke emotion and Papers, Please certainly evoked a lot of emotions from me. If it wasn’t fear, it was panic. If it wasn’t panic, it was sheer torment. Save for the rare gleam of hope and happiness — I mean, I did buy the kid his crayons in the end and we managed not to starve.
The art style is really simple… I think drab is the better word. It serves the game fantastically, creating a sea of essentially nameless faces — I know they have names but I cannot remember a single one. I do remember the experiences and situations but I felt like I was dealing with the most generic of people.
There is basically one song in the entire game and it only plays on the title screen. It is a marvelously stiff Arstotzkan anthem. The first trundling notes especially set the tone so well.
This game is hard. It’s incredibly hard. I struggled from the very beginning to keep my head above water. The game includes an option to give the player a crutch bonus of 40 dollars daily and that might be the only way I can see it to the end. I know I’m depriving myself of the experience so I urge anyone to not use it unless absolutely necessary.
It’s not my complaint but I would be remiss if I didn’t warn that this game is not fun. It’s great, it’s fantastic, I love it and I wish it well with every fiber of my being but it was not something I would call enjoyable. It’s a trial, a testament, an experience — a great one, even — but it was not pleasant in the least. It’s not an average game played for laughs or for joy so don’t expect to find it in such dismal proceedings.
I cannot recommend Papers, Please enough for someone looking for something completely unique, brutally difficult, and frighteningly mundane. I’ll warn the anxious and the nervous that this game might set you off. It is something entirely unto itself and for the low low price of $9.99 it can be an addition to your Steam library. Seriously, check it out, even though it’s not fun it’s still amazing!
Speaking of mindless fun.
Next Week: Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.